START Playing Around: Why Work Should Be More Like A Game

Posted by · July 10, 2012 2:23 pm

Gamification of Life (Jul '11)We were all kids once. So we all remember what it was like in more serious situations to be scolded by parents, teachers, and other grownups with that timeless phrase, “Stop playing around!” To be sure, many of those times we had it coming. I mean, a classroom probably isn’t the best place for a rowdy game of tag, which—let’s be honest—typically turned into a game of shove. Nor is the grocery store the best field for a quick game of football (trust me; I still try from time to time). But in other instances, that popular retort may have been misused during our childhoods, and as a result, misapplied in our adult lives.

From the very beginning, our work and our play have typically been portrayed as inherently separate, as being incompatible on such a molecular level that any attempt to merge the two would utterly ruin both. Instead of seeing them complementary ends in themselves, we typically see one (work) as the lengthy, often unpleasant means to the fleeting yet blissful end contained in the other (play), only to see the long, bitter cycle start all over again. But as studies and experiences alike have shown us time and time again, this is neither the most productive nor the healthiest perspective to have.

From personal blogging and using social media during work hours to the gamification of the work experience itself, the play mindset is hardly the drag on productivity that it might initially seem. In fact, it’s just the opposite when correctly implemented.

Personal Blogging at Work

When it comes to personal blogging at work, Forbes writer Susan Adams observes, “Along with sharing information about work tasks, blogging at work pulls employees closer to one another, builds relationships, and over time, increases productivity.”

She continues:

Workers were drawn to reading about their colleagues’ leisure interests. Those blog entries made them feel connected to the writers, and want to read what they had to say about work tasks. In addition, writers felt flattered when they attracted a lot of readers, so that made them want to write more interesting copy, to attract readers.

. . .

There’s a migration from blogs to real life. In other words, if a worker becomes interested in his colleague’s blog post about his new camera, and then he runs into that colleague waiting for coffee, the two will likely strike up a conversation.

Blogging at work

In other words, not only will copywriters and others find increased incentive to produce quality content, but employees will begin viewing the workplace as more than a drab, lifeless factory floor where grumbling workers punch a clock and go home, hardly uttering a word to each other. And as most employers know, this is hardly a way to keep a staff motivated, or around for very long—two major setbacks for any business in pursuit of long-term profitability.

Social Media at Work

The same goes for using social media at work. In a study conducted back in 2009, Australian scientists found that allowing workers to visit their favorite social media sites provided a much-needed mental break and ultimately increased concentration when they returned to the task at hand.

“People who do surf the Internet for fun at work – within a reasonable limit of less than 20% of their total time in the office- are more productive by about 9% than those who don’t,” observed Dr. Brent Coker of the Melbourne Department of Management and Marketing.

It seems our brains actually need a distraction from time to time—and a rather considerable one at that—in order to produce quality work in a timely manner. Otherwise we begin to get burnt out, and our productivity suffers regardless of how committed we are to completing a project. To put it another way, there is a point at which commitment to a task becomes counterproductive.

Gamifying the Workplace

Finally, the gamification of the work experience is not exactly a new concept, at least not in a general sense. This is particularly true in the area of sales. Big bonuses, family vacations, surprise giveaways—all of these incentive programs (and many others) are examples of ways that sales managers have long gamified the work experience for their sales teams. However, in recent years, the gamification of the work experience has taken on new forms, making its way into the parts of the enterprise that aren’t associated with sales. And just as the promise of an exotic family vacation inspires salespeople to compete against each other—which simultaneously increases sales and makes employees happier—similar contests among non-sales employees have been proven to boost productivity, reduce employee burnout, and keep employees happy.

Gamification of Life (Jul '11)

In a study entitled “Engagement Unleashed: Gamification for Business, Brands and Loyalty,” Saatchi & Saatchi S found that about half of American workers were already engaging in some form of social gaming during the work day. The same study found that even more (55 percent) prefer to work for a company that gamifies the work experience as a way to increase productivity. Noting the majority’s preference, Saatchi & Saatchi S CEO Judah Schiller agreed that gamifying the working experience could help “foster innovation, reinforce positive behavior and increase engagement.”

In fact, if the game is socially engaging enough (preferably multiplayer), the study revealed that some workers—particularly younger ones—are willing to forego higher paying jobs in order to work for the gamified business. As for prizes, the best incentives have proven to be little more  than special deals, discounts, or even peer recognition or awards once employees earn the requisite number of points. For business owners, this means that creating a points-based, game-like work experience for employees is not only a phenomenal tool for teambuilding and productivity, but a potential control on labor costs as well.

To that point, CRM Analyst Lauren Carlson adds that increasing employee retention and preventing eventual burnout is about instilling a “sense of accomplishment” in employees. This, she says, can be done by ensuring that the experiences employers create for workers contain “the core pillars of gamification: measurable action, reputation and incentives.”

The key, however, is to ensure proper implementation of the game framework so that work itself is tied to these pillars. As ReadWriteWeb’s Klint Finley points out, “If the aim of game mechanics is to make work more engaging, then the mechanics need to be applied to actual business processes. It shouldn’t be time-wasting games tacked on to something else.”

Or as Douglas Rushkoff so clearly describes it on his blog, “Real fun at work means the work itself is the fun.” In other words, “fun at work” is not nearly the same as “fun as work.” However, as demonstrated above, “fun at work” activities such as personal blogging and social media also clearly have their merits.

And it is at this point—where work and fun are seen as synonymous, not as one (work) being a means to the other (fun)—that individual and organization alike achieve their respective forms of sustained satisfaction and stability.

For more on gamification and how to gamify the workplace…